The Humble Foot

For obvious reasons, the word for foot is one of the oldest in the language: O.E. fot, from P.Gmc. *fot (cf. O.N. fotr, Du. voet, Ger. Fuß, Goth. fotus “foot”), from PIE *pod-/*ped- (cf. Avestan pad-; Skt. pat, acc. padam “foot;” Gk. pos, Attic pous, gen. podos; L. pes, gen. pedis “foot;” Lith. padas “sole,” … Read more

Italicizing Foreign Words

Karin-Marijke Vis wrote: What to do with foreign words? Do I put them in Italics, or in single or double quotes? And then, is there a difference in for example the word ‘retsina’, that my dictionary knows, or ‘kafé’ that the dictionary doesn’t know [both words relate to a story in Greece]. Same about Indian … Read more

Airplane Ears

Filip from Sweden has a question about an unpleasant accompaniment to flying: My question is simple but yet hard to explain. It’s about the phenomenon “blocked ears,” or “cap of the ears” or whatever you might call it. You know when you land with an airplane and you feel there’s pressure inside your ear and … Read more

One “L” or Two?

Lisa wrote: We’re having a bit of an issue here at work. Can you address the usage of canceled vs. cancelled? If you’re using a U.S. version of Word, typing cancelled will get you a wiggly green underline. However, both spellings, canceled and cancelled, are acceptable standard usage in English. The doubled l in cancelled … Read more

Wake Up, Little Suzy!

Jan Bringmann writes: I have seen many use the word woken instead of awakened. Is this correct? English speakers enjoy a large selection of acceptable verb forms that express the action of leaving the state of sleep: Present forms: wake, waken, awake, awaken Past forms: waked, woke, awoke Past participle forms: woken, wakened, awakened, awoken … Read more

Words Ending in -gue

An email in which the word colleague was spelled “colleag” got me thinking about English words that end with a hard g sound spelled -gue. Since only a few such words are in common use, learning to spell them shouldn’t be too difficult. WARNING: These words start to look strange when you look at them … Read more

Without Cease

One of my illustrations in a recent post, The wind has blown without cease for three days. struck some readers as odd. This from Brad K. I would have used “ceasing” for the wind, an action verb that conveys more of a sense of continuing over time. If I’d been writing a descriptive passage, I … Read more

In Search of a 4-Dot Ellipsis

Reader Vic Shane writes: …my editor told me there is a four-dot ellipsis that is not the same thing as the three-dot version. When I went to Journalism school (32 years ago), we only had the three-dot variety, as far as I know. The extra dot came from somewhere and I’d like to get to … Read more

Cannot or Can Not?

Peter Ki asks: What is the difference between ‘can not’ and ‘cannot’? Although my personal Error Alarm buzzes whenever I see cannot written as two words, both forms are acceptable usage. Merriam-Webster lists cannot as one word. If you try looking up “can not” in the online unabridged, you will be sent to a list … Read more

Writing a Reference Letter (With Examples)

At some point in life, you’re almost certainly going to have to write a reference letter for someone. It might be a former employee or student, or even a family friend. Here’s what you need to know about the purpose of reference letters and how to write the most effective letter possible. Note: I will … Read more

Good to Be Back!

I’m sure no one noticed, but I’ve been away from my desk for the past fortnight. Although I didn’t touch a computer keyboard during that time, language was very much on my mind as I toured Sicily in the company of 15 other English-speakers. The countries represented among us were England (London and Yorkshire), Australia, … Read more

Let’s Party!

From a reader comes the question: Could you cover the term ‘carousing’ and how to use it correctly, along with other party-related terms? Thanks! Carousing suggests noisy, drunken celebration. People leaving bars singing and shouting can be said to be carousing. Examples: The neighbors caroused into the early morning hours. Jack and his friends were … Read more